The Davises have created a familyhood
by Catherine E.C. Hughes
Larry and Katie Davis went from parents to employers when they followed their daughter into the hospitality business and bought the Willard Street Inn in Burlington.
Larry and Katie Davis had no experience in the hospitality or restaurant business before buying the Willard Street Inn in Burlington in August 2005. The East Aurora, N.Y., couple did know a lot about marketing and research and development, though; they had spent more than 25 years in the children’s product industry.
Larry worked at Fisher-Price for 17 years before he and Katie started the TalkWorks Co., which handled research, product development, and marketing of children’s products. They ran that for 11 years.
“We’ve gone from entertaining little people to entertaining big people,” says Larry with a grin.
The Davises fell in love with the Burlington area when they brought their daughter, Carrie, here in 1997 to take a look at Champlain College. They stayed at the Willard Street Inn, which was then owned by Beverly and Gordon Watson.
Carrie, 29, has degrees in business administration and hotel and restaurant management from Champlain College, but she began her career at the front desk of the Roycroft Inn in East Aurora when she was 16. Her freshman and sophomore years at Champlain she had a job at The Inn at Essex, and then was hired by the Watsons to work at the Willard Street Inn.
After graduation Carrie went to work at The Mansion on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo, N.Y., but in early 2005, the Watsons hired her back to be their general manager. She has been at the Willard Street Inn ever since. Not long after returning to the inn, her parents became her employers.
It turns out that the Watsons were thinking about easing into retirement. “It was serendipity that she accepted the general manager position” Larry says. “About a week or two after that — Bev and Gordon knew we had fallen in love with Burlington and had given serious consideration to relocating — they said, ‘Any chance you’d be interested in changing career directions and buying the inn and becoming innkeepers?’”
“Before that it was not an idea in our head!” Katie adds.
Having been self-employed, the Davises knew how to work, says Larry, but had no hospitality business experience. “Carrie agreed to show us the ropes. What Katie and I bring to the party is over 30 years’ marketing and brand management experience.”
The inn is a true family affair. Carrie Davis is general manager and heads up the front of the house. Jordan Davis is marketing services manager.
They call themselves the “Davis Management Team.” Carrie is the general manager and heads up the front of the house. Katie is in charge of interior design, decorating, and the bookkeeping. Larry works on general management and maintenance.
Their son Jordan, 26, is the inn’s marketing services manager. According to Larry, “The lure of the Green Mountains grabbed him in Atlanta and brought him up here.”
Jordan had been a geologist in Georgia. In addition to his marketing duties, he takes care of the plants inside the solarium. He redesigned the vegetable gardens at the rear of the inn’s spacious backyard, which is graced by two majestic old-growth trees. A gardener tends the English flower gardens, for which the inn is well known.
“Again,” says Larry, “it’s a blend of the old and the new. The garden was here, but he found a landscape architecture software program. He designed it in a CAD type program — measured the height of the pine tree, and the program allowed him to calculate the sun and the shadows.”
Jordan also led the effort to become certified as a green hotel by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources and the Small Business Development Center. “It’s been eye-opening,” says Katie. They started with changing to energy-efficient light bulbs and keeping the inn’s heating system balanced, then graduated to recycling and composting.
The Davises’ older son, Matt, is the only family member not working full time at the inn. He lives in Taipei, Taiwan, where he is the director of global marketing and sales for the Dahon folding bicycle company. His dad says Matt did help them initially with technology at the inn and upgrading it.
The three-story Victorian-style inn offers luxury accommodations in 14 guest rooms with private baths. It was built in 1881 in the Queen Anne/Georgian Revival style as a private home for Charles W. Woodhouse, a businessman and Vermont state senator.
The Watsons transformed the house into an inn in 1996, and it has been restored to its original glory. The building features a lot of marble and wood, wonderful cherry panels, and antiques — many from the Davis family. The gold leaf china, for example, belonged to grandparents, and the barrister bookcases came from Katie’s father’s law office. The top three floors occupy about 10,000 square feet. Larry and Katie live in an apartment on the inn’s lower level.
The Davises are actively involved with the local business community. “We are very impressed with the high quality of business thinking amongst the business community,” says Larry. They are members of the Burlington Business Association, the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce, and the Vermont Chamber.
The inn is busy year-round, and continues to be so despite these tough economic times, says Carrie. One difference, she says, is that there is less lead time and that guests are making more last-minute reservations.
The inn employs 14 full- and part-time people, including Anthony Spine, a NECI-trained chef, who makes the popular breakfasts. One morning, the choices included lemon poppy seed waffles, Vermont maple syrup and fresh fruit as one of three options. Breakfasts are served in the marble-floored solarium, which features 313 panes of glass. The Davises know the number, because they replaced 42 of them.
The family closed the inn for the first time last winter to attend Matt’s wedding in Taiwan. They were gone 10 days. “One of the biggest challenges is getting away from the property,” Larry says.
“It’s balance, when you’re working and when you’re not working,” adds Carrie.
Anthony Spine, a NECI-trained chef, creates the inn’s popular breakfasts, which are served in the solarium.
The Davises have had some interesting guests, such as Karl Lagerfeld from Chanel Paris along with his team of supermodels and creative assistants. Now when they look at the fashion magazines, they recognize some of their guests in the glossy ads, exclaiming, “Oh! There’s Baptiste!” and “Oh! There’s Heidi!” Lagerfeld and his entourage stayed five nights. “Karl doesn’t want to stay in a hotel room; he wants to stay in a house,” says Carrie. He took three rooms — one for the luggage, one for dressing and working, and one for sleeping.
A family from San Jose, Calif., staying at the inn recently was enjoying the gardens, in between rain showers. Bob Poniatowski e-mailed friends back home photos with the inn in the background. The reply he received was, “You didn’t tell me you were staying in a castle!”
“What is surprising,” says Larry, “is that people want to meet the innkeepers and owners. We draw people literally from all over the world — of late, we’ve had quite a few people from England. The ones that surprise us most recently are from Australia and Brazil.
“Our market is people who are interested in more than just lodging,” he continues. “They’re interested in experiencing an 1880s mansion. We try and provide the service of yesteryear with the amenities of today. You walk in and see this big cherry foyer and wide staircase, but we also have free wireless Internet. We try and give people the experience of what it was like to be in a mansion, but also some of the Vermont experience in terms of being a green hotel and part of the Vermont Fresh Network.”
The Davises clearly enjoy what they’re doing. “One of the things we try to do is to anticipate what our guests need,” says Katie. For example, they’ve prepared lists of ideas for day trips and places to see in the area. Maps are included.
“If they can pick a direction, we can tell them what’s in that direction,” Carrie says.
“One of the things we hear a lot from our guests that they like is the attention to detail,” says Larry. “This includes decoration and food and the plate presentation, when it comes out with six to eight different kinds of fresh fruit on it.”
“We like doing the little things like bringing chocolate chip cookies to their rooms every day,” Carrie adds. “We go up and check all the rooms and make sure that after the housekeepers are finished, it is to the standards we want.”
Part of the ambiance comes from all the books and peaceful things to do, including a “read and return library,” says Katie. “We’re book people, so you’ll find books in every room and games on every floor.” One guest wanted to take home a book he hadn’t finished. Larry says, “Instead of sending back the book, he sent me a brand new book by the same author. How cool is that!”
The Willard Street Inn is part of the Select Registry — Distinguished Inns of North America. It has been favorably featured in magazines and in many reviews by their guests.
“That’s the rewarding part,” says Larry, “when people do the little things, the thank-you notes. We do appreciate the online reviews that have been, fortunately, very positive, but it’s the unexpected note — somebody sending you a book just because they thought you’d like to read it. For Katie, it’s also the diversity of people she has met.
Adds Larry, “Running an inn is something like having a gigantic sociology experiment come to you — research come to you — because you get such a wide cross section of people, and over time you begin to observe traits of lots and lots of different people from lots of different geographies. It’s fascinating.” •